Time Magazine Ranks Top Colleges for Future Leaders

Attending an elite university might improve your chances of landing a leadership position, but there are other pathways to that goal.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on December 11, 2023
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Alex Pasquariello is a senior news editor for BestColleges. Prior to joining BestColleges he led Metropolitan State University of Denver's digital journalism initiative. He holds a BS in journalism from Northwestern University....
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  • Time magazine released a new ranking of colleges based on the leaders they produce.
  • Private colleges dominate the top 10 of the 100 institutions listed.
  • Other such studies have found varied connections between elite education and leadership.

Colleges everywhere purport to educate the next generation of America's leaders, but which institutions can back up such claims? Thanks to a new ranking by Time magazine and Statista, we now know.

The magazine's inaugural "Best Colleges for Future Leaders" ranking analyzed the resumes, personal websites, corporate bios, and media coverage of 2,000 U.S. politicians, CEOs, and Nobel Prize winners, among others, to determine where they went to school. The results are then somehow weighted based on a school's size.

Only the 100 colleges and universities that fared best are featured on the magazine's website.

Despite what the title might imply, the ranking considers graduate and professional degrees as well as undergraduate alma maters. For many of the institutions, Time lists "notable subsidiaries" such as schools of law, medicine, business, and public health.

Here's what Time determined to be the top 10:

  1. Harvard University
  2. Stanford University
  3. University of Pennsylvania
  4. Columbia University
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  6. Yale University
  7. Princeton University
  8. Northwestern University
  9. University of Michigan
  10. University of Chicago

Among these, only one — Michigan — is public, although the University of California, Berkeley comes in at No. 11, and the University of Texas at Austin appears at No. 14.

In its analysis, the magazine points out there's nothing inherent about the education at these schools that cultivates leaders. Instead, their value lies in the signaling they convey. Many companies have a "vested interest" in hiring graduates of certain institutions because "elite degrees offer a shortcut for finding talent," the magazine notes.

Graduates of these schools often flock to careers in finance, technology, or consulting, top choices for those who eventually find themselves in leadership positions. Yet nontraditional pathways abound, Time acknowledges, such as the University of Michigan's ties to the automotive field and universities in Texas that send alumni into the oil and gas industries.

Many Leaders Don't Hold Elite Degrees

To be sure, Time's efforts aren't the first attempt to determine which colleges produce the most leaders. In a 2020 journal article, Steven Brint et al. compared the educational backgrounds of U.S. "cultural elites" to those of business leaders and politicians.

They defined "cultural elites" as members of academe, the media, and the arts, along with leaders of philanthropies and think tanks.

What did they discover? Cultural elites were almost twice as likely to earn an undergraduate degree from a top college than were business and political leaders. Among their sample, about one-third of these "elites" attended one of the top 39 undergraduate colleges, as determined by U.S. News & World Report's rankings.

Business executives and political leaders were more likely to earn their graduate degrees from elite universities than their undergraduate degrees.

Another analysis found that among the current CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, about 12% earned their undergraduate degrees from an Ivy League school, and another roughly 10% hold an Ivy MBA.

The rest hold degrees from colleges and universities spread out across the educational landscape. And five of the top 20 CEOs don't even have a college degree.

While Time's ranking offers a valuable glimpse into the link between universities and the leaders they produce, it's only a snapshot in time, so to speak. A similar analysis in three years might produce different results depending on who's occupying those positions at the moment.

If the magazine continues its annual ranking, we'll find out.

Yet the salient message is this: Attending one of these "top" schools might improve your chances of attaining a leadership position someday, but you certainly don't have to feature those names on your resume to achieve that goal.